Sunday, February 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Churches' land fight up for vote; Sims seeks to limit rural-area sprawl

Seattle Times staff reporter

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King County Executive Ron Sims' campaign to keep sprawl out of rural areas has touched off a holy war that's expected to climax in the Metropolitan King County Council tomorrow.

Sims has asked the council to limit the size of most "nonresidential uses," including churches and private schools, outside the county's urban-growth boundary. No building should be larger than 10,000 square feet, he said, and the total size of all buildings at any one site shouldn't exceed 20,000 square feet.

Meeting tomorrow

The Metropolitan King County Council will take up a size limit on private schools and churches during its noon session tomorrow on the 10th floor of the county courthouse, Third Avenue and James Street, Seattle.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle is leading a crusade to persuade the council to block Sims' plan. Some County Council veterans say they haven't been lobbied so hard in years.

Last week the archdiocese turned up the heat. In Thursday's Catholic Northwest Progress newspaper, Archbishop Alexander Brunett raised the specter of lawsuits and political repercussions if Sims' size limit is approved.

Brunett noted that Sims and several of the 13 council members are up for re-election this fall.

"... If we are prevented from meeting the spiritual and education needs of thousands of Catholics, there will be consequences," he warned.

Brunett called for a 35,000-square-foot limit on new churches. Because Sims' proposal wouldn't limit the size of public schools, he said, private schools should be treated the same way.

Archdiocesan spokesman Bill Gallant said the church was exploring a possible amendment to the state Growth Management Act to bar the county from limiting church size. In addition, he said, the archdiocese had asked U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, to seek an opinion from Attorney General John Ashcroft on whether Sims' plan would violate U.S. law.

But Tim Trohimovich, planning director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Washington, said his group might appeal if the County Council exempts churches and private schools from any size limit.

Package of changes

The limit is part of a package of changes to the county's 1994 growth-management plan that Sims presented to the council almost a year ago. When the council finally took up that package last Monday, the issue dominated the nine-hour meeting.

It never came up in open session. But out in the hall and in closed-door party caucuses, there was talk of little else. Council members, Sims aides and lobbyists angled or votes and searched for compromises.

When those behind-the-scenes efforts failed, council Chairman Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way, recessed the meeting until tomorrow.

Later in the week, Sims signaled his willingness to increase the limit to 40,000 square feet. His foes said that wasn't enough.

Absent a compromise, the swing votes tomorrow could be David Irons Jr., R-Issaquah, the council's newest member, and Greg Nickels, D-Seattle. For Nickels the decision may be particularly agonizing: He's running for mayor of Seattle this fall.

"Does he (antagonize) the Catholics or the greens?" one council aide wondered. Nickels did not return calls on the issue.

Where fight began

This fight all began with a big, new private school and a big, new Free Methodist Church in the rural area east of Redmond. Sims aides who drafted the growth-management-plan changes say those two developments showed the need for a size limit. Sims said he proposed the size limit because rural residents want it.

The private, Christian Bear Creek School opened its new K-12 campus on 208th Avenue Northeast to 400 students last fall. The complex covers 90,000 square feet, about the size of two football fields.

Councilwoman Louise Miller, R-Woodinville, who represents the area, said she had received many complaints from constituents about the school, especially about the traffic it generates on rural, two-lane roads.

TimberLake Christian Fellowship, off Redmond-Fall City Road a few miles away from The Bear Creek School, is under construction, but the congregation's leaders still are battling neighbors and the county in court over the church's ultimate size. TimberLake wants 80,000 square feet, about as much space as all the floors the downtown Seattle Nordstrom store occupies.

The church has about 1,000 members. Interim senior pastor Bill Bump said that it will be a good neighbor, that 44 of the 63 acres the congregation owns will remain wooded.

But Steve Shifton, who has lived across the street for 30 years, said that doesn't mitigate the traffic, noise and light the new complex will create.

"It's not a rural church," he said. "Is it appropriate for an urban activity to take place in a rural area?"

There's a larger issue behind the size-limit proposal, supporters say: fear that large institutions that draw big crowds could intensify pressure to move the urban-growth boundary farther into the countryside.

"That camel may not get into the tent for 20 years," said Stephanie Warden, director of Sims' Office of Regional Policy and Planning, "but the executive has a longer-term view of this."

She and Sims said they had to make an exception for public schools because they have a le- gal obligation to serve children in their neighborhoods; private schools don't.

Gallant, the archdiocesan spokesman, said he appreciates the county's desire to contain sprawl. But Catholics who already live in rural areas are clamoring for new parishes, he said, and 20,000 square feet falls far short of what's need to accommodate a church, a school and housing for clergy.

Treating private schools more harshly than public schools just isn't fair, Gallant added.

Land is cheaper in rural areas. Some backers of the size limit say that's what's really motivating the archdiocese. "Quite frankly, we're pretty offended by that," he said.

What's happening in King County is just one front in a wider war: a long-running national dispute among churches, cities and counties over local government's power to use zoning and other land-use laws to regulate religious institutions.

Congress stepped in last year, passing a law that forbids local governments from imposing any land-use rule that "imposes a substantial burden" on the exercise of religion unless there is a "compelling governmental interest."

Gallant said Sims' proposed size limit would violate that law. "We could build St. James Cathedral on the Sammamish Plateau if we wanted to," he said. But the archdiocese is willing to accept a reasonable size limit, even though it isn't required to, he added.

If the county adopts Sims' proposal and the archdiocese sues, its case will be strong, said Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., which represents churches in land-use disputes.

"Telling a church how big it can be is clearly a substantial burden," he said, "and simply saying `We don't want sprawl around here' is not a compelling governmental interest."

Congress passed a similar law in 1993, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1997 as an unconstitutional federal intrusion into state affairs. New York University law professor Marci Hamilton, who argued that case on local government's behalf, predicted the new law eventually will be found unconstitutional as well.

"The federal government is intruding on the last bastion of local governments, and that's land use," she said.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or


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